Monday, 19 June 2017

Art Sex Music


Cosey Fanni Tutti Art Sex Music (2017)
If the suggestion that any one thing ever changed my life holds any meaning, then Throbbing Gristle are probably right up there with Doctor Who and Asterix the Gaul, at least in terms of broadening my horizons. I bought the records, live tapes, and any fanzines I could find. At one point I was even writing long and, I suspect, extraordinarily juvenile letters to Cosey; and she wrote back - and replies in the plural running onto the second side of the sheet of paper before arriving at her distinctive signature with the first two letters of Cosey written so as to resemble a pair of knockers. So although I've sort of fallen out of love with that whole weirdy music thing to some extent, I couldn't really not read this, her autobiography.

I went fully off the boil with Chris & Cosey's music around the time of 1990's Pagan Tango. It sounded bland and uninspired to me, and still sounds bland and uninspired. I said much the same about their Union Chapel performance nearly a decade later in an issue of the Sound Projector, which supposedly got back to them and prompted raised eyebrows and frowning. Having once corresponded with Cosey, I felt slightly shitty about that, like I'd betrayed some trust; but the fact of it was that I genuinely believe they had lost the plot half way through recording Techno Primitiv, musically speaking, and after sitting through a couple of hours of it I just didn't feel like kissing arse. So tremendous guilt is to account for how much I really wanted this to be a great book, which unfortunately it isn't.

On the other hand, Art Sex Music isn't terrible either. Cosey has had an interesting life, more than her fair share of genuinely weird career twists, and I have the impression that she's a genuinely decent person - an impression garnered from the aforementioned correspondence and through our having a whole shitload of mutual friends, plus she likes cats; so the story itself is interesting, even fascinating in places, but something is perhaps lost in the telling.

Firstly, it's far too long for anything written in what occasionally resembles the prose of a footballer's autobiography in which I opened the door and there stood none other than my famous friend Ray Reardon, the snooker champion. Cosey doesn't actually seem to have known Ray Reardon, but she has even more famous friends than Grant Morrison, including at least two distantly mutual acquaintances I'd cross the fucking M6 during rush hour to avoid. One of the tosspots in question I recall turning up to our lectures at Maidstone Art College, neither student nor teacher but some forty-year old bloke from the town apparently interested in literature, poetry, performance, and screwing a string of vulnerable eighteen-year old girls who had fallen for his leather trousered sales pitch. The fucker still crops up everywhere, usually in association with Marc Almond for some reason, and here he is again; and there's another even bigger shitehawk who I'm not going to identify, and who has evidently somehow managed to Zelig his way into the Cosey Fanni Tutti narrative, thus briefly transforming me into Father Jack bellowing how did that gobshite get on the television? And I'm not even talking about Porridge here.

So there's that element, and also the stumbling block of my profound loathing for the art establishment with particular emphasis on performance art; and the fact of my having become a sort of amalgam of Hank Hill and Kenneth Clark when it comes to other people's sexuality, much of which I generally regard as ghastly, particularly free love and polygamy - this based mainly on everyone I've ever known to have swung on that particular vine being a complete fuck-up, emotionally speaking. Accordingly, I additionally found myself skipping the accounts of Cosey's career as a stripper. I just couldn't bring myself to read it, and instead found myself turning up the volume on the television and telling the boy to go to his room.

I suppose one might justifiably wonder why I read the book at all; but, in spite of the above reservations - or my musty hillbilly prejudices, depending on how you look at it - I've always liked Cosey. I think she's interesting and has been involved in some great music; and I've always enjoyed Throbbing Gristle, and it's good to read a version of their story which doesn't revolve around it all having been Porridge's idea. Genesis doesn't come out of this very well, as you may have heard, and while I've seen it suggested that Tutti is herself not without a certain bias, I have my doubts. Her testimony seems balanced and consistent with what I know of her through both mutual friends and our ancient correspondence. Whatever flaws she may exhibit, the preservation of any of her own delusions doesn't appear to be a factor. I haven't read Simon Ford's Wreckers of Civilisation*, but it seems to have come to represent a version of the Gristle story which this account sets straight, and that at least has to be a good thing. Art Sex Music isn't an amazing autobiography as I've seen claimed by a few industrial music arse-kissers, but it describes an arguably amazing life and is nevertheless worth a look, and I might even be persuaded to pick up some of those more recent Carter Tutti discs as a result.

*: I met Simon Ford around a friend's house, and he was introduced to me as someone writing a book about Throbbing Gristle. He asked me if I had a copy of the Adrenalin 7" single which he needed for reference. Given that said single really wasn't that difficult to get hold of, then costing about fifteen quid from Record & Tape Exchange, and that we're referring to a single by a band about whom he was supposedly writing an entire book, it didn't fill me with confidence in his efforts.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Dead Souls


Nikolai Gogol Dead Souls (1842)
Here's another one picked up as part of a vague ongoing effort to edumacate myself with regard to literature 'n' shit, the hook in this instance being that I'd heard of it because Joy Division had a song presumably named after it, albeit a song which Nine Inch Nails did better. Interestingly enough, there doesn't seem to be much common ground between Gogol and Ian Curtis pleading for these dreams to be taken away, specifically the dreams which point him to another day. Indeed, the work of Joy Division seems at quite a remove to Gogol's dark yet amiable chortlefest. So as not to appear completely superficial, I would additionally like it to be taken into consideration that the chap on the cover of this edition vaguely resembles my friend Andrew, and that seemed like another good reason to read the thing.

In case it isn't obvious, my understanding of literary history is sketchy at best, and particularly sketchy when it comes to nineteenth century Russians. I read Crime and Punishment but I didn't like it much. Thankfully Dead Souls is written with a lighter touch, despite what might be anticipated from the title. Key to understanding what is going on here is the setting of rural serfdom in Tsarist Russia, a system in which commoners were regarded as part and parcel of the land upon which they lived, and therefore property of the landowner. Said landowners were required to pay tax upon their incumbent serfs, with the numbers being based on the most recent census figures, regardless of how many listed on the most recent census remain amongst the living. Our man Chichikov discovers there are economic advantages to ownership of a large quota of serfs, and so travels the countryside buying the deeds to those who have snuffed it, but whose deaths have not yet been taken into account by the most recent census. In other words, it begins as a satire on economics and the capitalist systems which allow for this kind of absurdist number crunching, expanding gradually into a farcical critique of class, privilege, and society built on the flimsiest of mutually observed concepts. In fact, it's almost Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle with better jokes and founded on the basic suggestion that we, as readers, might like to consider waking the fuck up every once in a while.

Thus these two citizens lived off by themselves until, now, toward the end of our story, they've popped up like faces in a window, and they've popped up like that to help me answer, in all modesty, the accusations of ardent patriots who, up until now, have been occupied in philosophical speculation or in the accumulation of money at the expense of the mother country they love so dearly. They don't give a damn whether or not their actions are harmful to the country; the only thing that worries them is that someone might say they're harming it.

No, it's neither patriotism nor even honest emotion that lies at the root of their accusations. Something else is concealed here. Why beat about the bush? Who's going to tell the truth if not the writer? So here goes: You're all afraid of a probing eye, afraid of looking thoughtfully into anything; all of you prefer to let your blank stare skim the surface of things.

The great success of Dead Souls is in its bumbling and overly fussy thrust, with Gogol - if we assume this to be a generally faithful translation - utilising the rambling tone of a folk tale strewn with absurdist tangents, obsessive conversational detail, and authorial interjections mulling over the actual telling of the story; so even when we're not quite sure what's happening - because Chichikov's motivation often seems obscure - we don't mind too much because there's plenty of other stuff to consider.

In some respects I suppose you might say it's like Dickens but without the cloying sentiment, although Dead Souls has sentiment of its own, presumably informed by Gogol having written the novel in Italy, flavouring his narrative with an exile's regard for his homeland which is both affectionate and faintly acerbic.

Legend has it that Gogol wrote a follow up to this, his best selling hit single, but this time incorporating characters with redeeming features; then destroyed the thing in a fit of self-recrimination. Personally I'd say the allegorically dead souls of the book do their respective jobs very well and have no more need of redeeming features than the novel ever required a sequel. Would that the Joy Division version had been so witty.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Sebastian O


Grant Morrison & Steve Yeowell Sebastian O (1993)
I had these, then flogged them on eBay whilst raising the funds which would allow me to ship all of my crap to America. Apparently I had a quick shufty through the three issues of this limited series and decided Sebastian O was less than essential, and so off to market it went along with a whole load of other crap I knew I would never read again. Inevitably I eventually came to wonder if I'd not been a little hasty in this financially motivated purge. Of course, I knew there was no good reason I'd ever wish to reacquaint myself with the Invisibles or Preacher or any of that other spooky self-harming landfill which Vertigo did so adequately; but I really had to think about Sebastian O and whether or not it belonged in amongst my collection, and then the bargain bucket at Half Price Books helped in the re-evaluation of my decision - all three issues, three dollars: very nice.

When one is tired of Oscar Wilde rip offs, it's perhaps not that one is tired of life so much as that one is simply tired of Oscar Wilde ripped off without due recourse to wit, like I just fucking said.

See!

I just wrote that.

It's a piece of piss; and that's the problem with Sebastian O.

So here we have some sort of steampunk romp grounded in material which had become clichéd even by 1993 - Victorian computers and so on and so forth; and a steampunk romp starring Sebastian O, a character combining Morrison's continued attempts to channel Jerry Cornelius with his fascination for wisecracking dandy bad lads, which is quite possibly an aspirational thing if our boy's bloody awful autobiography is any indication. So we get a few recycled bits and pieces from Oscar Wilde, J.K. Huysmans and the rest because, let's face it, not too many Sandman fans will have bothered with any of that stuff and it's easy enough to fake. Except actually it really isn't. Oscar's zingers might seem like a piece of piss to the untrained ear because even a horse can work out the mechanism of the gag, but that level of wit is actually quite difficult to do well and to get right for the exact same reason that no-one will ever mistake an Oasis record for the Beatles. Bluntly, whilst Grant Morrison is not lacking in nous and has proven himself more than capable of cracking off an amusingly outré sentence when required, he's no Oscar Wilde. Nor is he even Michael Moorcock, for that matter, so the wit upon which this story hinges simply isn't quite so razor sharp as it believes itself to be, just as those Johnny Rotten impersonations set forth on Steve Wright in the Afternoon always left something to be desired.

On the other hand, I doubt any of this matters because it's drawn by Steve Yeowell and is thus beautiful beyond comparison, regardless of what unjustified smirking may occur within the text. Taking a positive view, the story is competent at least in the same sense of most modern Doctor Who being competent, sort of, and much like Sebastian O himself, its failings are mostly eclipsed by its ravishing good looks.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

The Pirates of Zan


Murray Leinster The Pirates of Zan (1959)
Further works of Murray Leinster continue to surprise even as I excavate them from the shelves of second hand book stores - something of a rescue and preservation mission because, let's be honest here, if the great Murray Leinster revival was ever a likelihood, it would have happened by now. Lacking big ideas or fancy concepts at quite the same scale as those of better remembered authors, it's no great mystery why Leinster seems to have sunk into obscurity; but considering the fun he obviously had writing this stuff, it really seems a shame - not least because he actually could write, unlike some I might mention.

The Pirates of Zan stars a man who may as well be your archetypal Gernsbackian science-hero, a talented electronics engineer suffering an ignominious life against the backdrop of a variety of backwards cultures; but the logic of the narrative and the peculiar twists and turns it follows as though trying to throw the reader off the scent, remind me a lot of A.E. van Vogt - which is naturally a recommendation.

On Walden, to be sure, the level of civilisation was so high that most people took to psychiatric treatments so they could stand it, and the neurotics vastly outnumbered the more normal folk. But on Walden, electronics was only a way to make a living, like piracy, and there was no more fun to be had out of being civilised.

Our man takes flight to a feudal world, engaging in swashbuckling of a kind which involves princesses and his own pirate ancestry, and the whole enterprise flips around and over with such frequency as to feel a little like farce, or at least satire; and yet whilst the prose might occasionally smirk at its own wry turn of phrase, there's never quite any giggling, neither a nod nor a wink to give the game away. Assuming The Pirates of Zan to be at least partially satirical, I'm still not entirely sure what it's about, if it's about any one thing. Leinster is clearly taking the piss out of economics, capitalism, and the society in which he was living, but the focus remains vague and playful, which renders the novel a thankfully decent, if occasionally puzzling read.

The Last Days of Animal Man


Gerry Conway, Chris Batista & Dave Meikis
The Last Days of Animal Man (2010)

It looked good in the shop: Brian Bolland covers making knowing reference to Grant Morrison's thoroughly mental run on the book, pleasantly clean lines from Batista and Meikis, and the intriguing possibility of a popular character shoved through the narrative mangle as happens in most of the best caped stuff - Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, Mark Grunewald's Captain America handed his P45 and so on...

What we have here is Buddy Baker losing his powers, which translates as a comic book having a mid-life crisis, but one written quite definitively for an audience with a reading age of about twelve. So we also have super-types fighting whilst talking, angry villains swearing vengeance and doing that face you do when you're trying to push out the first turd to take its leave of your bottom in five or six days, and we have a sense of humour which makes your average episode of Friends look like Jerry Sadowitz, and all adding up to a load of horseshit about the importance of family and being yourself. I suppose it might seem unfair, my taking such issue with something so obviously aimed at younger readers, but on the other hand I've read plenty of stuff aimed at kids which managed to do its job just fine without expecting me to make allowances; so balls. The Last Days of Animal Man isn't the worst comic book I've ever read, but it almost makes those bloody awful Jerry Prosser issues seem mysterious and alluring.

Most positive reviews I've seen of this thing seem to focus on the guest appearance of a Green Lantern who is actually a whale, which is a nice idea, but no substitute for being able to tell a story, or at least a story other than the same fucking one wheeled out for every film in which Michael J. Fox ever appeared.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

The Burroughs File


William S. Burroughs The Burroughs File (1984)
I realise Burroughs isn't everyone's cup of tea, although he's generally mine which is why I'm surprised to have found so little satisfaction in this collection of his one-off bits and pieces culled from obscure magazines or other similarly esoteric sources. I suspect the problem is that I'm accustomed to reading cut-up text in the context of either novels or collections put together by the man himself, the man who understands best how they work, and whether or not it's just a load of words. Exterminator!, for example, might be described as thirty unrelated pieces including cut-ups, certainly nothing the author seems to have intended to work as a novel, and yet the balance is just right. The cut-ups alternate with more traditional forms of prose with a rhythm which seems to take account of the likelihood of readers' losing patience or growing bored, and so somehow it holds together as a single coherent piece, even if not as a novel as such.

Here we mostly have material which was written to be read either in isolation, or in isolation by virtue of nothing else of the same author appearing amongst the original adjacent pages; but I'm nevertheless reading them as a collection of thematically similar pieces all crammed together in one place; which for the most part just serves to highlight how repetitive Bill could be at times, and how cut-ups really shouldn't read as though they are just random assemblages of words and phrases, which I deduce from the fact that I usually get a bit more from them.

That said, there are a few pieces which more or less justify having this thing on one's shelf, mostly provocative prose essays serving to remind us why we might choose to read Burroughs in the first place. Also there's a section reproducing pages from Bill's cut-up scrapbooks which are visually fascinating; but otherwise, The Burroughs File is one of those books you tend to feel you should have rather than something you're going to be dipping into for years to come, unless you're just too weird for your own good.

Monday, 29 May 2017

Birmingham Nouveau


Alan Mahar (editor) Birmingham Nouveau (2002)
It probably says something unfortunate about the city of Birmingham - West Midlands rather than Alabama - that it's taken me fifteen years to get around to reading this themed collection of short stories. Birmingham was the nearer of two big cities when I was a kid. I found the place oppressive and terrifying, vast and dark and smoky with weird accents and a street layout which made no sense, seemingly having more in common with H.P. Lovecraft and the Bermuda Triangle than yer regular town planning. So I wasn't drawn to this volume, despite having been slipped a freebie by John Mulcreevy. He'd already sent me Birmingham Noir, the previous collection from Tindal Street Press, and I think I'd read a couple of stories and just never quite warmed to it; or it could have been me, given my reading age of the time combined with a general reluctance to read things lacking a Doctor Who logo on the cover.

Anyway, I hadn't even managed to flog Birmingham Nouveau on eBay during the great purges of 2010, so there it was, still in the spare room at my mother's house making me feel guilty; and as though to prove what a pillock I am, and how poor is my sense of judgement, I found the collection about a thousand times more entertaining than Going Postal. John Wagstaff's An Air Kiss represents an astonishing opening story, a tale where the main character really is the city itself - the sort of claim which is often made but rarely fulfilled. You can almost taste the amalgam of chill morning air and diesel as roadworks kick off in neighbouring streets. It should be a tough act to follow, but the rest make a good job of it for the most part. I found Richard Lutz's The Girl with Blue-Black Hair a bit unconvincing, but otherwise there's nothing which gives you any reason to stop reading. A pleasing sense of humour informs most of the book without necessarily feeling it has to dig you in the ribs to make sure you get it, and this tendency is given its fullest expression in M. Idrees Kayani's riotous King of the Baltis:

A chorus of laughter erupted from all those present to which Mazar Khan raised his hands and bowed in courtesy. Mazar, often known as Mad Mazar, because he worked fifteen hours a day, six days a week, just so he could build an elaborate mansion in his hometown of Mirpur, a place that he hoped never to see again. The reason for constructing such a building was so his relatives could marvel at its size and comment on how well he was doing in England.

There are twenty short stories here - notably stories of exactly the right length so nothing gets to outstay its welcome or start on the extended guitar solos - encompassing all times, places and people in the history of a city which the collection obliges you to re-evaluate, or at least obliged me to re-evaluate; and Ava Ming's Lena actually made me cry, which isn't something that happens often. I'm very impressed.